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The School Environment: Issues for Aspergers Students

For the Aspergers (high functioning autistic) student, schools are full of environmental stimuli that can (a) create a state of anxiety and (b) wreak havoc on his or her sensory sensitivities. Many Aspergers kids are already anxious about wanting to follow the rules, live up to the teacher’s expectations, and get through each day without any major problems. 

There have been plenty of studies out there conducted by educational psychologists that show that school settings affect not only those with Aspergers, but other students as well. But keep in mind that the "Aspie" student must also grapple with having her senses assaulted throughout the day. In some instances, if she is not yet a self-advocate, or if she is unaware of her own sensitivities, she may be unable to pinpoint exactly what triggers her anxiety and subsequent loss of control.

Most Aspergers children are keenly aware of the social, educational, and environmental expectation that they “fit in” with the crowd. To compensate, they “keep it together” all day long the best they can. Once they return home, many Aspies breathe a sigh of relief, allow their pent-up stress to explode, and meltdown in the safety of the home environment where they feel most comfortable to let down their defenses. This creates a confusing dilemma for educators who report to moms and dads that their youngster “seems fine” during the day. It also creates a frustrating set of circumstances for moms and dads who may internalize their own self-doubts about “something they must be doing wrong” at home. But it is no one's fault! The Aspergers youngster is simply reacting to the stress-relief that comes with dropping the fa├žade he's been wearing during seven hours of school time.

Here are a few suggestions that parents may want to share with their Aspie’s educators to minimize the stress-inducing “environmental stimuli” that accompanies typical school settings:

1. Partitions around learning stations and computer centers are great for creating visual blocks on both sides of a student and can also cut down some noise.

2. Classroom walls can be over-stimulating and “busy” with decoration. If visuals cannot be streamlined, at least keep them somewhat static so the Aspergers youngster can become accustomed to them.

3. Helping the Aspergers student maintain some element of ‘structure’ during relatively ‘unstructured’ times can be quite helpful. For example, an alternative to being swallowed up by the lunchroom crowd would be to establish “lunch-time discussion” tables in a quieter corner of the cafeteria. Also, some schools assign seating on the bus, which helps alleviate some anxiety experienced by the Aspie when seating is a daily “free for all” and he must compete for seats with older kids.

4. Consider felt pads under the feet of all classroom chairs as buffers against the constant scraping noise they make.

5. Ensure that all children have advance knowledge of schedule changes outside of the routine, such as early dismissal or assemblies.

6. Focus on natural lighting instead of fluorescent lights when possible, using fewer overhead lights or adding alternate lighting such as floor lamps.

7. Many Aspergers kids thrive during those portions of the school day that are structured by routine, but those same children may flounder and feel lost during the many unstructured school events that occur throughout the day (e.g., gym class, hallway socializing between classes, lunchtime, recess, riding the bus to and from school, school assemblies, etc.). As a result, your youngster may be best poised to weather the awkwardness of unstructured school situations if he can volunteer for, or be assigned, a responsibility or role during the activity. For example, many Aspergers children are not as physically adept as they want to be. Playing on a team in gym class can be confusing and uncomfortable, but this can be tempered if he is also in charge of keeping score.

8. Give the Aspergers youngster advance notice of fire-drill times so that he may brace himself for the noise. If he cannot tolerate it, small foam earplugs may help, or wearing iPod or MP3-player headphones may diffuse the noise.

9. Hallways can become extremely noisy (e.g., the echo of footsteps, load conversation, etc.). Wherever possible, keep classroom doors shut.

10. Numbering classroom rules as written reminders for the Aspergers youngster is a good idea, but publicly displaying them on a desktop is stigmatizing. Tape them inside a youngster's notebook or binder and refer to them discreetly.

11. Ringing classroom phones can be startling. Switch to a flashing light instead of a ring to indicate a call.

12. The volume of the PA system in the room may be too loud. If it's possible to adjust the volume, this can help. Same for the change-of-class bell.

For more suggestions on how you, my child's teacher, can make the school-setting more tolerable, please visit

Implementing the ideas above may significantly help the Aspergers youngster to “hold it together” in a more environment-friendly school. These methods shouldn’t be seen as “pampering” the Aspie. It just makes sense to poise him for success rather than set him up for failure – especially in light of the fact that he spends the majority of his day at school.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the list! I'm going to print this out and take it to my daughter's middle school. She will be new to the school this fall and I want to let them know that I love my child and DO CARE about her success at their school and I will be involved in any way I can to ensure she has the best possible chance at that success. These are very practical steps and will benefit all the kids with Asperger's.

One Apprehensive Mommy

Anonymous said...

Good tips. My son's school allows cell phones and he has an iphone that he can input his schedule, maps of where to go, and social stories...e.g. what to do if he doesn't know anybody at lunch. Instead of panicking he can look at his phone, like every other kid, and he will have the answer. He fits in and remains calm. There are many aps out there to help kids in these and other situations.

Anonymous said...

The observations of this article are spot on.. thanks.
The main point that raises stress levels in schools is the time factor. The loudness of the bell and the noise of the corridor would be okay if it wasn't that all those things incur a state of time panic. So I can remember losing focus the last 10 minutes of class, missing the homework instructions that are barked at you as kids are already stuffing books in bags. All beacuse the bell is about to go. I think a smoother transition from one session to the next would be the most helpful thing.

Anonymous said...

Melinda Swope Brooksher I read the tips for educators..thought they were great. My Aspergers grandchild start school tomorrow. We have already been told by school "If she throws a fit she will be sent home and counted truent" Whats a person to do??? They say there not equiped to handle her. Any suggestions?? Anyone???
16 hours ago · Like
Jamie Hesketh Yes, Dont send her to that school, you need to find a school who can help and give her the support she needs, I know it can be easier said than done, but no harm trying. :o)
16 hours ago · Like · 1 person
Danielle Clute
Been there ,and my son is now being home tutored.The school environment was just to much for him.I was called to pick him up everyday .He is a good boy but just had so much anxiety due to all the sensory issues.I must say he is so much happier at home.Although if you want your grandchild to stay in school ,then they will have to accomodate her needs by law.I wish her and you a happy school yearshe needs you to be her advocate,don't let them get to you,stand your ground with them and tell them what she needs.Goodluck.
16 hours ago · Like · 4 people
Marcia Thompson Is this a public school? Does your grandchild have an IEP? The IEP should set clear expectations and consequences that everyone, especially the student can understand.
16 hours ago · Like · 2 people
Claire Hesketh I agree, if they are saying they're not equipped to deal with her then they will be of no help to her. She needs support not being told to go home as a truent, that's just ridiculous the poor girl. Is there another school you son/daughter could look at for her. We are in the UK and I know school catchment areas can be difficult in some places
16 hours ago · Like
AshleyandJustin Fenton My son had an aid all year in headstart,he also has an IEP.he starts kindergarten tm n they said they dont have funds for an aid for him,yet i noticed our football stadium got a major updo,really irritated right now..
16 hours ago · Like · 2 people
Marlene Biggy chaos, havoc..... yeah, that sums up MY daughter's school experiences
15 hours ago · Like
Nicole Stader Smith Great ideas. Which as a mom could suggest, but wouldn't hold my breathe.
15 hours ago · Like · 1 person
Melinda Swope Brooksher We live in a fairly large school district. They just don't want to deal with her, and they have hurt more than help. I know by law they have to take her but like they said they can send her home for safety of the other children. My daughter is at the end of her rope..and has almost lost6 her job because of the calls from school..wanting het to come get her. I really think my daughter needs a good lawyer.
13 hours ago · Like
Danielle Clute Could your grandaughter possibly go into a smaller room with a one on one with her at all times?Or are they like our school and claim there isn't enough money in the budget?Its so sad,and I know how yo ufeel we have been through this and now first hand how frustrating it is.I pray things get better for her.
12 hours ago · Like
Megan Daoust
does the child have an IEP? There may be groups that can help your daughter by being an advocate on behalf of the child at meetings and such. You can call around to different developmental specialists, or child psychologist and mental health facilities even. Try to find other people in the community who have had similar experiences, maybe they can help you overcome these hurdles. Are you in the States? Wishing the best for your family.
10 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

Lisa Surette can u tell me were you live,,, they should have some trained educators with aba to help you...
12 hours ago · Like
Melinda Swope Brooksher We live in Kansas. Mental Health staff was at the IEP meeting and were as shocked as we were to hear them say they would send her home (which is what the child wants, and knows what to do to accomplish it) A Doctor even called last school year and explained WHY THEY SHOULDN'T SEND HER HOME. I don't think this school district has "trained anything""

Anonymous said...

Emily St. Peter That couldn't be any truer...
Wednesday at 6:27pm · Like · 1 person
Linda Brenkus This is still our experience on a bad day but with support (other aspie friends, maturity and lots of exercise (re think PE and get them onto a sports team if possible) - it does get better on the whole - hang in there

Anonymous said...


My son's school moves the seating in the classrooms every quarter. I'm not quite sure why they do this but wanted to ask if any of you know or think this is a good practice for our kids. I would prefer my son be in the front row,away front the door and other distractions. Is it good for our kids to be moved around? my son seems to have a hard enough time just remembering things and messing with his space may just be even more confusing . Or do you think it is good for our kids to adapt to new spaces? I'm conflicted and wonder what the pros would say.

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

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Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

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